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organic living journey nitrates and nitrites

The following is part of an Organic Journey Guest Post Series, written by Amy a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.

The last few weeks, we have been talking about toxic load and starting at the top of the food chain to figure out how to get the best bang for our bucks in reducing our intake of toxins.  We’ve covered chicken and now it is time to examine pork.  I know that pork is a controversial topic on its own due to everything from religious reasons to fat content.  If you don’t want to eat pork, I totally respect your decision.  However, I’m a southern gal and bacon is going to find its way into my home every now and again.  In light of that, I want to make the wisest choices possible when it comes to pork.  (Not to mention that bacon is my daughter’s favorite food–even with her limited access to it!)  When you start looking for healthier bacon, hot dogs and other pork products, one of the first big labels you will see is “No Nitrites or Nitrates Added.”  I thought I’d start my research there since I honestly have no idea of what a nitrite or nitrate was.

As a disclaimer, let me say that I am not a scientist or a doctor.  I’m pouring over these articles that take me back to high school chemistry and make me wish that I had actually retained more of what I learned twenty years ago.  That being said, let me attempt to share with you what I’ve learned about nitrates and nitrites.

Sodium nitrates and sodium nitrites are used as a preservative.  They extend the shelf life of meats, add a particular flavor and they keep cured meat a pretty red color (without them, meat would be an unappealing gray.)  Nitrates aren’t really the problem, but they break down into sodium nitrites.  Sodium nitrites aren’t the problem either.  After a phone consultation with my college roommate, I walked away with this great example.  Sodium nitrites are like gremlins.  Did you watch that movie growing up?  I didn’t.  I was totally terrified, but I do remember this.  Gremlins were uber cute and fluffy creatures, but if you fed them after midnight, they became these horrible monsters.  Sodium nitrite is the same way.  It is totally harmless on its own, but if you combine it with protein, it reacts and forms nitrosamines.  Nitrosamines are the real monsters.

Potential Dangers of Nitrosamines
1.  Sodium nitrites are banned in many countries because of how they turn into nitrosamines.  And nitrosamines are known carcinogens.  Some say that they increase the rates of colon, stomach, and pancreatic cancers the most.

2.  Dr. Suzanne DeLaMonte, a Neuropathologist, has found links between diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and nitrosamines.  She says, “Years ago, a few scientists suggested that nitrosamines might cause diabetes. The concept was not pursued until now. We performed experiments in the laboratory and showed that very low, limited exposures to nitrosamines (the type found in food) cause Alzheimer’s-type brain degeneration, dementia, diabetes, fatty liver disease and obesity. Adding high fat to the diet made the disease-causing effects of nitrosamines much worse….All of the major diseases related to insulin resistance, which are now epidemic in the United States, could be caused by exposure to low doses of nitrosamines over a period of years.”

3.  For others the danger is simply headaches.  For years, I noticed that I was more prone to getting a headache right after I had something with nitrites in it.  I’m not alone.  The National Headache Foundation lists nitrites/nitrates as a trigger.

Controversy and Confusion
It seems pretty simple then, right?  If nitrates and nitrites can morph into their evil cousin nitrosamines, then we avoid them.  We buy products with no nitrites or nitrates added, right?  Oh, if only it were that simple.  Natural and organic companies have found a way to mimic the flavor of the meat we love by using celery powder or celery juice.  Seems harmless; after all, it’s celery.  Applegate, one of the leading producers of natural and organic processed meats explains it this way, “All animal proteins are made up of amino acids that contain naturally occurring nitrites and nitrates. And so Applegate products made with animal protein will have levels of naturally occurring nitrites and nitrates.  In addition, the celery juice and sea salt used to cure our meats also contain naturally occurring nitrates.”  So, Applegate and other “No Nitrites or Nitrates Added” companies aren’t adding the synthetic nitrites, they are using natural sources instead.

The USDA is actually at the root of the labeling confusion.  They require processed meats that don’t have the synthetic sodium nitrite or nitrate to be labeled as uncured (even though they have been cured by natural sources) and to have the added label of No Nitrites or Nitrates Added.  Companies like Applegate have actually petitioned for the USDA to simplify the labeling, but without success.

Bottom-line is this: if you are buying processed meat, you are most likely getting either synthetic or natural nitrites with it.  Now what do we do?

Three Differing Camps
There are several different responses to all of this information.  Here are the ones that I found most prevalent.

1.  Since nitrites and nitrates are naturally occurring in much higher doses in certain veggies and even in our saliva, then it is no big deal.  Eat up.  Some think that it is all one big marketing hoax (which I find hard to believe since the USDA is behind the labeling requirements.)  Besides, they say, meat companies are adding ascorbic acid into foods with sodium nitrites in order to try to prevent the formation of nitrosamines.  “Don’t worry, eat bacon” is their general philosophy.

2.  The second camp is more concerned about avoiding synthetic nitrites.  They say, “It’s also worth noting that processed meats are not the only sources of nitrites. Green leafy vegetables and root vegetables contain naturally occurring nitrites, though it’s thought that compounds in the vegetables inhibit the formation of the harmful nitrosamines in your body.”  The thought process is that synthetic nitrites and nitrates lack certain vitamins and potentially some other property yet discovered in naturally occurring sources of nitrites.  Because of this lack you are at a higher risk for nitrosamines to form and thus be exposed to the dangers listed above.  Their mantra, eat cautiously.

3.  The third camp believes that all nitrites are to be avoided-synthetic and natural.  Marji McCullough, director of nutritional epidemiology for the American Cancer Society says here that, “Nitrite is nitrite and consumers should be aware of what they’re eating.”  This camp’s mantra, “No nitrites for you!”

Then there is my camp.  If I have to choose between something synthetic or something natural, I’m going to opt for the natural every time.  So, if I am choosing between meat cured with sodium nitrite or nitrate and meat cured with celery powder and salt, I’m going to go for the celery.  I’m also going to go with the all things in moderation policy.  We don’t consume large amounts of pork as is.  For now, until I learn more, we’ll keep our consumption minimal and savor it maximally.  I know that there is way more to this topic than we have covered here, but hopefully this is enough information to get you thinking.  Plus, this is only the first step in my learning about pork!!  Next week, we’ll look at the differences between regular and organic pork to see what you are paying for.

So what do you think about sodium nitrites in all their forms?  Are you going to live it up with bacon for breakfast every morning or do you have a different take on all of this?  I’d love to learn from you all as so many of you have been researching these things for far longer than I have!

    • I am so excited about the peel-and-stick chalkboard deal. With three busy boys we need lots of ways to stay organized and communicate.

    • I am so excited about the chalkboard deal. With three busy boys, we need more ways to stay organized and keep in touch.

    • Michelle

      As a migraine sufferer I am acutely aware of the processed meat connection to not being food for me and triggering migraines…my first migraine occured when I was pregnant and ate a sub from a well-known sub shop…I was literally blind for about 20 minutes, one side of my face went numb as did one hand and my tongue…
      I tried a sub again several months later thinking it was just a coincidence and BAM! same thing happened…
      I do not eat processed meats now because I know what will happen…Can I prove it’s the nitrites/nitrates? No. Do I know that is what causes the blinding migraines? Yes.
      Great article by the way! Keep up the good work :-)

      • amysanders

        so glad your migraine relief came quickly! and thanks for the kind words…this stuff is so stinkin’ confusing!

    • How does farm raised and locally butchered pork factor into this nitrite issue?

      • amysanders

        you would have to ask them how they are processing the pork. it is more a curing/processing question than a question about how the pigs are raised. does that make sense?

      • TheChapLeigh

        I am on the learning curve with our first order this fall of pastured pork. The pig is slaughtered at the farm, brought to the butcher, and then cut to your order. It was only the bacon cuts that were left to be cured or whatever they do. As I said, I’m learning… so imagine my surprise this Christmas when I realized that i was NOT going to be able to make the Christmas ham from the cuts we had — I didn’t realize that a HAM has been processed to have the taste & flavor of a ham…. because my cuts were unprocessed, what I had was a ROAST. Yeah, so it didn’t taste that great, but I made some awesome soups, and just tonight made some pork, mac & cheese from the diced leftovers that I’d stored in the freezer. YUMMMMM….. Sometimes you’ve gotta be grateful for the health benefits; I haven’t eaten store-bought pork/ham/bacon etc ever since watching some of those documentaries, however a truly pastured pig is very different. And i know that i do NOT want the additives, preservatives, etc in the traditional ham any longer.

    • allison

      I used to get migraines and I don’t anymore. An interesting and thought provoking article.
      My husband had me deliver my home cooked meal to his office today because he knows with the nitrites in fast food are dangerous for his high blood pressure, but I guess we have to watch out for sub sandwiches, too.
      I could not understand how I could be prediabetic, since it does not run in my family and I am quite active. Now I see the problem more clearly. Applegate here we come.
      We do not eat the flesh of swine, as it is forbidden in the bible, the Talmud and the Quran.

    • katkoupon

      I’ve been reading on this for a while, and I am no less confused about nitrates than when I started, lol. Almost two years ago, I traded out my cheerios breakfasts for bacon and eggs, and that’s been my breakfast every single day since then. I’ve lost 80 lbs, (weighing less now than I did in high school!), and I had my best-ever basic lipid test last month, (green across the board!). I look forward to next week’s follow-up. Bacon has been the hardest meat for us to find a healthier version of. I can’t find Applegate in any nearby stores, so for now we just eat Costco bacon until we can find a better alternative. I see some online stores from different farms, sustainable and pastured, but it’s hard for me to place a large order with a company I don’t know more about and not have any references. If anybody has any recommendations I’d love to hear them! Hoping to find better options in the near future, as we do love bacon, and I don’t plan on giving up my bacon any time soon!

      • katkoupon

        Oh, and I used to get migraines too, before I eliminated grains and most processed foods. I still eat bacon with the nitrates/nitrites. May be different triggers for different people.

      • amysanders

        it’s clear as mud, hey?

      • sundrop474

        First off, congrats! What awesome results!

        We purchase Oscar Meyer Selects Uncured Bacon. According to the labeling it is “uncured” and has “no added nitrates or nitrites except those occurring naturally in celery juice”. It is NOT organic or pasture raised. (One thing at a time for us.) But it is reasonably priced and easily available in our area (NE FL). And I often find coupons as well. HTH

        • katkoupon

          Thanks! I’ll keep my eye out for that one as well.

      • TheChapLeigh

        As you may have already read in my other responses above, we had our bacon cuts processed at the butcher. I do not know exactly WHAT was done to “cure” it, but you can be sure I will be asking soon :) And it tastes awesome is all I have to say!!! I can’t believe I didn’t think to ask at the time, but I WAS overwhelmed with all the questions I had to answer regarding how I wanted the pig butchered… who knew there were so many choices???

        I can also add that we had a lot of “breakfast sausage” packaged up from our pig, and that was NOT processed. I have learned that breakfast sausage is to pig what hamburger is to beef… when butchering, a lot of the leftover meats & fatty portions go towards sausage & hamburger. No pink slime or meat glue with our pastured pork that’s for sure ;) So, that may be an option if you want to completely avoid the processing aspect of your breakfast (meat) protein. HTH!

    • Michelle

      True-different migraine triggers for different people :-)

    • rrshaffer

      I have recently given up processed meats because of this. Does this issue effect all pork? I still buy pork loin and chops.

      • TheChapLeigh

        I can tell you that the pastured pig that we had slaughtered did not have any processing done to it for any cuts other than the bacon cuts. The loins & chops were unprocessed. I do not know about store-bought & packaged loins & chops.

    • jenn

      Hormel Natural Choice Bacon is one of my favorites-it goes on sale pretty regularly at Harris Teeter.

    • TheChapLeigh

      Applegate has become my “go-to” for sliced sandwich meats — it often goes on sale at Harris Teeter. But after reading what you wrote above, I may need to determine what “camp” i’m in with that, eh? We don’t eat much of it, but it is a nice change-up from our other lunch items. I think we’ll stick with it, but I sure do appreciate your investigation into this!

      This may be a side-topic, but I’ve just recently found “Jason’s Deli” in the larger towns I’ve been to… it’s nice to be able to go out to eat/catch lunch on the run at a place that is marketing to the more food-conscientious kind of demographic. I wonder where their lunchmeats are coming from?? In all my ~spare~ time I should really find out ;)

    • kc

      Thanks so much for the information. We are on the same journey. I look forward to and appreciate your series so much.

      • amysanders


    • kc

      Thanks so much for the information. We are on the same journey. I look forward to and appreciate your series so much.

    • Jeffy Walker

      We eat Turkey bacon, is that just as bad?? Is their any way to get natural/organic turkey bacon?

      • tori729

        I’d like to know this too!

      • amysanders

        i’ve been wondering the same thing. i’m going to dive into that for next week. :)

        • Jeffy Walker

          I can’t wait. I love these post. even though I cant always get Oranic.

      • EV

        Yes Turkey Bacon is also cured with nitrates. (You’ll see sodium nitrate or something on the ingredients). However, I believe Applegate and perhaps some other “natural” food companies provide the “no nitrates added” turkey bacon (with the celery/salt kind). I don’t know if “uncured” is the way to go, or if it will still have some naturally occurring nitrates. Anyway , yes, turkey bacon (and sliced deli turkey) is one of the worst offenders in terms of always having synthetic nitrates as preservatives, unless it is labeled otherwise. Pretty much any kind of bacon product. But also, Publix has a “Ovengold” turkey at the deli counter that has no preservatives if you like fresh sliced.